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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters is an investigative history by filmmaker Frances Stonor Saunders, of the CIA's program to finance a propaganda campaign against Soviet Communism in the cultural sphere beginning in the immediate post-WWII period. To this end, the agency laundered money through philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the last headed by Michael Josselson.

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This effort involved support for concerts, art exhibitions, as well as ballet and theater companies, intended to suggest that the United States placed as high a premium on cultural values as did the European nations which America hoped to retain as political allies throughout the Cold War. African American performers, in particular, were often sent on foreign tours to deflect criticism from evidence of racial injustice in the United States.

The CIA's influence was perhaps clearest in the case of the numerous literary and political publications it financed, including "Encounter," "Paris Review," "Partisan Review," and "The New Leader," among the most influential. Indeed, it was not unusual to find agency employees, such as Peter Matthiessen, in their offices; a founder of the "Paris Review," he later admitted to having been a CIA case officer.

Among the names to be found in "Encounter," for example, were some of the most significant in the intellectual life of the period, but also reliable exponents of the democratic or left anti-Stalinism favored by the CIA: George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Isiah Berlin. However, the magazine also featured a number of equally distinguished figures, including W.H. Auden, Jorge Borges, Robert Lowell, Vladimir Nabokov, and others, whose work can't be easily reduced to political sloganeering. What is clear is that certain subjects, such as American racism, were mentioned only sotto voce, in its pages, and the imperialistic adventures of the United States, such as the overthrow of the governments of Iran and Guatemala, not at all.

The CIA's clandestine involvement in the realm of culture was finally revealed in the late 1960s, a few years before the Agency's acknowledgment of much more serious crimes in the course of the Church Committee hearings. In both, the absence of transparency represented a tragically flawed vision of governance in a constitutional democracy.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955

In 1966-1967, RampartsThe New York Times, and The Saturday Evening Post exposed and documented how, in the two post-World War II decades, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been supporting and using a network of cultural organizations for pro-American propaganda. With the exception of Africa and the Communist bloc, it had been a worldwide project. The sensation, however, had little lasting resonance. In her first book, Frances Stonor Saunders deals, in effect, with the question: Who still cares?

Saunders does care, and The Cultural Cold War intimates that the reader should, too. She writes: “The claim that the CIA’s substantial financial investment came with no strings attached—has yet to be seriously challenged.” The author set out to “undermine this myth of altruism” regarding culture subventions. Her text is a call to look back on history and learn the lessons and pitfalls of unchallenged covert actions.

In twenty-six evocatively titled chapters, each introduced with a pithy motto, Saunders presents her investigation into the cultural scene and related political institutions of the Cold War era. Her approach is both diachronic and synchronic. Beginning in Berlin during the winter of 1947, The Cultural Cold War moves to encompass CIA activities in Paris, London, the United States, and elsewhere, culminating in “that disastrous summer” of public exposure in 1967. According to U.S. historian and diplomat George F. Kennan (a frequently quoted reference), these were years in which the United States had “no Ministry of Culture, and [the] CIA was obliged to do what it could to try to fill the gap.” Saunders does not share this apologetic view—on the contrary, she considers it disturbing that, after 1967, “in the field of international covert operations, nothing at all had changed.” Implied is the problem that democratic forces demanding government accountability have not yet been brought to bear.

In her examination of the CIA in the Cold War, a significant factor for Saunders is the relationship of the United States’ “elite” to democratic ideals and practices. From the first, CIA recruits came predominantly from “the aristocracy’ of the eastern seaboard and the Ivy League, a Bruderbundof Anglophile sophisticates.” Ostensibly believers in democracy, these men, Saunders concludes, were basically “wary of unchecked egalitarianism.” For her, the “paradox of a defence of democracy mounted by patricians who were essentially deeply suspicious of it is hard to ignore.”

The men who became major facilitators, the “fixer[s]” of the Kulturkampf—that is, the three characters around whom Saunders constructs her narrative—were, however, outsiders: Michael Josselson, Melvin Lasky, and Nicolas Nabokov. Josselson and his contemporary Nabokov were exiles uprooted from Eastern Europe who had made their way via Berlin to the United States in the 1930’s; Lasky is a Jew born in 1920 in the Bronx. Whereas Josselson and his younger protégé Lasky are credited with considerable intelligence, Nabokov, from an upper-class Russian family and cousin of the novelist Vladimir, is characterized as having more charm and pretense than substance. Lasky spearheaded the first of two significant CIA-funded instruments of the cultural Cold War—the Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950, and the journal Der Monat, launched in 1948, both in Berlin, the flashpoint of Cold War political and ideological tensions.

Like the “cultural consortium” of “pipe-smoking Yalies”—to use Saunders’s iterative epithet—Josselson, Nabokov, and Lasky were committed anti-Communists. Their seemingly limitless “official unofficial” influence as America’s cultural propagandists also made them “uninhibited by any sense of accountability.” Already by 1954, according to a report to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the “octopus-like CIA” tended to act as if “acceptable norms of human conduct [did] not apply.” Throughout, Saunders’s text conveys her moral outrage that “America’s cultural Cold Warriors could so easily disengage’ when it suited them” (for example, in their willingness to make a distinction between art and politics with relation to Nazism but not to Communism). Metonymically, Josselson, Lasky, and Nabokov embody the dangers against which Saunders’s book warns.

The Cultural Cold War investigates not only the operatives, but also the structures through which cultural propaganda was controlled, and money is a leitmotif. “We couldn’t spend it all,” recalled an agent. The two initial cultural fronts the CIA created in Berlin grew into an international network of Congresses for Cultural Freedom and literary magazines. The former constituted umbrella organizations that overtly supported a broad palette of cultural undertakings while covertly funneling CIA funds to propagate anti-Communism and antineutralism in order to exert American control. The initially highly respected journals modeled on Der Monat (such as Britain’sEncounter, France’s Preuves, and the Spanish-language Cuadernos) were to enhance CIA influence through association with intellectuals and to exercise control over intellectual output, as did the post-1940’s Partisan Review in the United States. The best talent of the times wrote for these magazines. Gradually tightening editorial policies, however, increasingly limited acceptance to material that at least tacitly supported the CIA line, whereupon quality declined. The CIA employed many institutions as “pass-throughs,” some genuine (for example, the Ford Foundation), some only facades (Farfield Foundation), as well as assorted arts festivals. Together, they constituted primary power bases of the cultural “Cold Warriors.”

The congresses, magazines, and other entities professedly “intended to reflect the broad coalition of liberal and left-of-centre constituencies . . . [as well as] to marginalize hard-line activists like [Arthur] Koestler.” Individually, Lasky, Josselson, and Nabokov utilized them as vehicles to cultivate local cultural elites, both right and left. Writers entangled in these machinations range from Koestler and George Orwell to Mary McCarthy and Arthur Miller. For instance, Saunders quotes liberally from McCarthy’s correspondence, especially with Hannah Arendt, both of whom received funds and favors at least indirectly from the CIA (for example, Arendt’s stay as writer-in-residence in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni and McCarthy’s Farfield fellowship) as part of its attempt to win the intellectual left. Artists and musicians exploited by the CIA for its propaganda ends ran the gamut from the avant-garde to the establishment, from Jackson Pollock and the Museum of Modern Art to the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra. Frequently cited is the involvement of intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Stuart Hampshire, and Leslie Fiedler; the roles played by Kennan and historian Arthur Schlesinger are also often mentioned. The names of highly placed, CIA-connected “custodians of the period” appear frequently: Allen Dulles, C. D. Jackson, Frank Wisner, Jay Lovestone, Tom Braden, James Angleton, Julius Fleischmann, Dwight Macdonald, Lawrence de Neufville, Irving Kristol, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sidney Hook, and the Alsop brothers. As with the “intellectuals,” their association and/or complicity with the CIA is treated more anecdotally than analytically.

The entanglements of recognized writers in CIA-supported venues are a fascinating, though controversial, aspect of Saunders’s book. Frequently appearing in her lists of authors are W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, André Malraux, Czesław Miłosz, Sir Herbert Read, Ignazio Silone, as well as names long familiar to readers of the New York Review of Books: Conor Cruise O’Brien, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Robert Lowell. Founded by Jason Epstein in 1964, “the review signalled the emergence of a newly critical intelligentsia, free to speak on those issues on which magazines like Encounter, bound, as it was, to a consensual discipline, were virtually mute.” In other words, the advent of the New York Review of Books signaled the beginning of the end of the cultural Cold War. Not until 1990 did Encounter cease publication, and, in an eerie twist of fate, the last editor of this once prestigious, longest-surviving magazine born of the era was Melvin Lasky.

Some intellectuals, writers, and artists were directly targeted by CIA propaganda operations, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Neruda. Most, however, were a more or less willing “community of interest” surviving on or at least enjoying the largesse of the CIA, though often not acknowledging the source of funds. “Mostly they all denied knowing anything about it, . . . but they made crummy liars,’” remarked Josselson’s wife, Diana, one of Saunders’s main sources.

Such direct quotations from interviews and private papers characterize the language that makesThe Cultural Cold War lively reading. The author’s style is a mélange of juxtaposition, repetition, implication, and opinion relayed in nonacademic language frequently spiced with irony. For instance, she describes her book as “a secret history, insofar as it believes in the relevance of the power of personal relationships . . . and the significance of salon diplomacy and boudoir politicking.” Her perspective is that of the critical British outsider. Although the candor of her interviewees’ comments on the period suggests that she was a sympathetic listener, as an author, she is somewhat disingenuous in that she recognizes—only in the endnotes—the advantage of decades of hindsight (the interviews were conducted between 1992 and 1997).

Methodologically, Saunders draws on her experience as a documentary filmmaker and constructs the majority of the book’s chapters as mises en scène focusing on particular events and cultural arenas. For example, “Marxists at the Waldorf” (chapter 3) deals with the fiasco of a 1949 leftist conference for “World Peace” and the CIA-organized “counter-committee.” Chapters 14 through 17, respectively, expose how American music, “High Culture” (“[John Crowe] Ransom’s Boys”), expressionist art (“Yanqui Doodles”), and films were co-opted for anticommunist propaganda. Chapter 12 depicts the scandal that grew out of Fiedler’s condemnation of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In chapter 13, “Holy Willies” (Kristol’s designation of fanatic anticommunists), Saunders hits her stride. The narrative about McCarthyism is vital, laced with plastic examples and witty sarcasm.

Later chapters examine the instability of the South American situation symbolized by the antics of a psychologically erratic, CIA-sponsored cultural representative, Robert Lowell (chapter 21, “Caesar of Argentina”), and infiltration attempts into PEN International (chapter 22, “PEN Friends”). Chapter 25, “That Sinking Feeling,” traces the end of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the dominance of the “bruderbund” [sic]. The heading of the final chapter, “A Bad Bargain,” summarizes the author’s own assessment of the cultural Cold War in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The book’s epilogue amounts basically to a rather nasty necrology sketching in what subsequently became of the main characters. Here Saunders returns to her central theme of exposing the “devastating truth . . . [b]ehind the unexamined nostalgia for the Golden Days’ of American intelligence.” For most of the players, deprived of their power base (funding sources), the era ended in a whimper.

Echoing her introduction, Saunders concludes with laconic skepticism:

[T]he same people [associated with the CIA] who read Dante and went to Yale and were educated in civic virtue recruited Nazis, manipulated the outcome of democratic elections, gave LSD to unwitting subjects, opened the mail of thousands of American citizens, overthrew governments, supported dictatorships, plotted assassinations, and engineered the Bay of Pigs.

The Cultural Cold War includes fresh archival research, an academically respectable list of sources, and a detailed index. An entertaining blend of record and reminiscence, despite the risk of reductionism, is Saunders’s means to draw in the reader and make her arguments. With her polemics, however, she tends to tread on some “experts”’ toes (such as historian Walter Laqueur’s). Her main issue is not the actual substance of the era’s culture, but rather the principle that secrecy bred abuse of power. The author is guided by an idealistic concern to come “as close as possible to the truth,” which she equates with “the very process of intellectual enquiry.” The Cold War may finally be over, but the issues Saunders’s book raises have no statute of limitations.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (April 15, 2000): 1505.

The Boston Globe, May 28, 2000, p. N3.

The National Interest, Winter 1999/2000, p. 133.

The New York Times, March 18, 2000, p. B7.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (April 32, 2000): 7.

Publishers Weekly 247 (February 21, 2000): 74.

The Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2000, p. A46.

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